By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
I've interviewed Cypress Hill four times, but on each occasion, Muggs, the DJ/architect of the rap act's sound, was conspicuously absent. It's not that he's shy, or hates reporters, or wants to maintain a low, mysterious profile. It's just that he has better things to do.
Like make records.
He's done songs and remixes for everyone from George Michael to U2 to Sonic Youth to Tricky, and has worked with too many hip-hop stars to name. But he's best known for the raw 'n' rowdy energy, driving bass lines, and freaky, tweaked, horn bleats of Cypress, who, after 10 years and six platinum discs, are rap's longest-reigning superstars. His other big claim to fame is "Jump Around." Crafted for House of Pain, that perennial party hit still generates fat royalty checks.
"I don't give a shit about interviews, pictures, videos. I'm in this to make music," the goateed producer asserts from behind orange-tinted glasses. "I don't care about fame. People who need to know me, know me, and I'm respected. I do this because I love it."
Muggs doesn't make eye contact much, but when he does, his piercing gaze goes through me, even from behind the shades. He answers questions, but doesn't freely add a whole lot more. In other words, Muggs doesn't care about me or you, just about making beats.
The occasion of his sparing interview-time out of his beat-making schedule is the release of Muggs Presents Soul Assassins II (which hits stores on October 3), a project near and dear to his heart. The producer wants to make sure folks know about it, so amid a recording session, he's given us a few minutes.
Like Soul Assassins I,its critically acclaimed 1997 predecessor, II is a collection of all-star MCs busting rhymes over Muggs tracks. Both discs move the producer out from behind the boards and into the limelight, not unlike New York knob-twirler Marley Marl's '88 classic, In Control, and Dr. Dre's g-funk masterpiece, The Chronic.
While the first Soul Assassins set boasted chart-topping names such as RZA, KRS-One, Wyclef, and Dre, the sequel leans more toward the underground. You get heavy-hitters such as Xzibit, Kurupt, and Everlast, longstanding cellar-dwellers like Ras Kass, up-and-coming buzz act Dilated Peoples, and still-unsigned, unknown newcomers such as Self-Scientific and Krondon.
"There's a lot of albums coming out like this, and everyone's running around trying to get the flavor-of-the-month MCs," Muggs notes. "So I did the exact opposite--got brand-new name fools I like, underground MCs. Even successful rappers that I use weren't gonna be household names like a DMX, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes. You've still gotta be into the culture to know GZA and Kool G. Rap [both on the album]."
On some tracks, Muggs replicates the artists' usual sonic milieu. On others, he pushes them in new directions. The classical bow-work and tremulous operatic vocals on "When the Fat Lady Sings" don't seem like much of a stretch for the Wu-Tang's GZA, while Kurupt takes a break from Long Beach party anthems on the sparser, East Coast-styled "When the Pain Inflict." Yet, despite the variety of voices and styles, the disc sounds like one cohesive work, tied together by Muggs' hallmark style: moody, ominous, sample layered upon sample. But the strata isn't so dense that you can't hear each element--horns, strings, keys, eerie vocal parts--on its own. Think of the orchestral compositions of Wagner, minus the bombast, from a b-boy stance.
One final Muggs trademark: no radio-friendly, harmonized R&B chorus. "Fuck that," he shoots back with a slight sneer. "My shit is dark--that dusty, smoked-out vibe. I always make nighttime music. That's how I like it, that's what I want to hear."
L.A. hard-core rap pioneer King T, who also appears on the new disc, echoes the sentiment: "He's kinda quiet in the studio, but when something doesn't sound right, he'll say, 'That shit is wack, do it again.'"
"He's like a conductor," adds Chase Infinite, an unsigned MC whom Muggs has taken under his wing, and who graces two tracks on the new disc. "I have a tendency to get real excited, and my voice will pitch up a little, but he likes my vocals more midrange. It's hard to argue with someone with such a proven track record of artistry and success."
Says A-Love Miller, a friend and host of KPWR-FM's Xero Hour show in Los Angeles: "He's no bullshitter. He's no pussy."
It's true: Beyond self-assured and no-nonsense, Lawrence Muggerud is tough--not someone you walk up to and slap on the back with a "Wassup, Larry?!" No doubt this temperament is a product of his upbringing. Born to Italian-American parents in 1968 in a rough part of Queens, N.Y., he grew up during the birth of hip-hop culture, "writing on walls, breakdancing, stealing car stereos, getting high--regular kid shit," as he tells it.
As a teen, he relocated to L.A. with his mom, "going from Pro Keds, Lee Jeans, Le Tigres, and do-rags to khakis, Converse All-stars, white T-shirts, and gang-banging--two different worlds. I got into a fight the first day and whipped some kid's ass."
Muggs quit school in 10th grade to sell weed and work construction, deejaying on the side. He started spinning at clubs, and for a local crew who went by the name of DVX, which included future Cypress members B-Real and Sen-Dog. Somewhere along the way, he won the West Coast DMC turntable championship and signed on as DJ for New York group 7A3. The group had a song on the Colorssoundtrack, put out an album on MCA, and had their second album shelved. Bored with deejaying, Muggs set his sights on production, starting with demos for B and Sen, who'd redubbed themselves Cypress Hill.
Signed to Ruffhouse/Columbia, the group made a splash among the core hip-hop contingent and beyond with their now-classic, self-titled debut. Muggs started his Soul Assassins production company, signed House of Pain, helped score them a label deal, produced their debut, and hit paydirt with "Jump Around." Cypress' sophomore album, Black Sunday, spawned the radio megasmash, "Insane in the Brain," which went pop without compromising its hard edge or street cred.
Soon, everyone wanted that Muggs flavor. In addition to churning out six albums for Cypress, the bicoastal producer has forged tracks for Funkdoobiest, Xzibit, Ice Cube, KRS-One, and Goodie Mob. He's spun out remixes for everyone from Goldie to Me'Shell NdegeOcello. He collaborated with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam on the Judgement Nightsoundtrack, and ventured into trip-hop with Tricky on Juxtapose. And on the latest Cypress album, Skull & Bones, he mixed his usual, "dusted," fat-bottomed hip-hop with trendy, live rock-rap fusion, performed by members of Rage Against the Machine, Fear Factory, and others.
Does he ever feel like he's selling out, or leaving hip-hop behind?
"Fuck no, man. I'm a musician. I can do anything. It ain't no selling out. People buy into me. I've never had to change my approach to make money. I grew up listening to disco, rock, soul, R&B, rap, and I like all of it. Next year I might fuck with an African drum record."
In fact, if there's one thing Muggs is passionate about, it's the diversity of his résumé. "I really respect Rick Rubin," he says. "He put out Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC...and Slayer. I've seen a lot of hip-hop producers get real hot, not diversify or challenge themselves, and fizzle out. [Doing other types of projects] is like a vacation for me. I go away, come back, and can't wait to do hip-hop."
"Regular shit. I love sports, I've got season tickets to the Lakers, I go to the horse-races, the gym, play golf with the homies, go to record stores, drive around [in his '63 Impala ragtop], go to a club...." He runs down the list in an apathetic, I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-this-question tone. These are just distractions.
Most who know Muggs call him an intense workaholic. Some consider him self-absorbed and aloof. They're probably half right: Muggs doesn't care about me or you...unless you happen to be a member of his extended Soul Assassins family.
Muggs says he coined the term "Soul Assassins" in '91, after the first Cypress album came out. "We had so many people down with us--a social club of Cypress muthfuckas. Not everyone could rap and be in the group, so everyone with a talent was down with Soul Assassins."
These days the Soul Assassins are a multifaceted alliance of producers, rappers, artists, filmmakers, low-rider car mechanics, and anyone who can "bring some shit to the table." The crew's tendrils stretch far. Core members include Cypress Hill, who have their own Soul Assassins Radio show on the L.A. airwaves via KKBT-FM, soon to be in syndication; Son Doobie, formerly of the Muggs-produced act Funkdoobiest, and now an on-air personality at KPWR alongside Muggs' friend A-Love Miller; former House of Painer turned b-boy-bluesman Everlast, back in the crew after a temporary schism some years back (to which Muggs attributes "immaturity, lots of money going on, egos"); former H.O.P. member DJ Lethal, who mans the decks for Limp Bizkit; famed underground producer The Alchemist; illustrator/low-rider car muralist/ink-slinger Mr. Cartoon, whose ornate handiwork marks the epidermis of everyone from Muggs to Method Man; and Estevan "Scandalous" Oriol, who Muggs matter-of-factly refers to as his brother. Scandalous manages Cypress on the road; pinch-hits for Muggs on the turntables when he's too busy to tour; runs Joker, the crew's low-rider-inspired line of clothing; snaps photos for album covers; and directs music videos, including the new GZA clip for Soul Assassins II.
They work on each other's projects, and they work separately. They hang out, talk shit together, smoke blunts together. There's talk of getting a warehouse that will contain Muggs' recording studio, Scandalous' photo studio and lab, Cartoon's tat parlor and design studio, an area that houses Joker, and an editing bay for future forays into film. (Scandalous, Cartoon, and Muggs have just finished penning a screenplay called Ink, about the skin-art scene.)
At the center of this conglomerate--this inner circle where professional and personal relationships blur into one--is Muggs. He's the binding element, the one who commands universal respect, but he's also an unlikely CEO or spokesperson.
"When he's in the studio, when he's with friends and family--Muggs is Muggs," Estevan says. "He's always the same. He doesn't talk much, because sometimes there isn't shit to say. But he won't lie, he'll tell you what he thinks. People who don't know him might think he's stuck up, or coming off rude, but that's just the way he is."